BY ISABEL FRÓES, IT UNIVERSITY DENMARK, Ph.D. CANDIDATE
Despite the chosen title, our present is not so grim. On the contrary, as we reach the middle of the second decade in the twenty first century, we are daily confronted by various realities. Digital and physical realities blend themselves into memories and experiences being shared, feared and treasured. Children of this century have not been cloned nor have they become “uncritical”. However following Huxley’s writing, there is abundant consumption not only of material goods, but also of digital goods.
Digital goods are consumed in unique ways. Adults and children do not necessarily turn on their digital devices for shopping, however they are consuming symbols, information and goods, all of them attached to brands of various sorts, from the device brand itself to digital brands, such as Google and YouTube. In the case of children, considering that the vast majority of them do not have the means to acquire such devices themselves, they make use of whatever they are offered, both from their parents and friends. Parents make choices based on suggestions from peers or ratings inside digital shops. There is a vast amount of applications available, and the most popular ones, many produced by well-known physical brands, are downloaded thereby linking their physical experience with their digital counterpart. It happens the other way as well. Popular digital applications have catapulted into merchandise of all sorts, both physical toys and games and even as far as linen and fishing tools (Angry Birds fishing toolwas spotted at a fishing shop). But what does this all mean? With the advent of digital devices and the universe of applications or, as they are commonly known, apps, symbols from a multitude of origins are consumed and promote more consumption. Bauman, a renowned sociologist, has long written about our current social drama. When critically assessing our current social state he points out that in order for the system to keep alive “consumers must never be left to rest”. Our current life is never “left to rest” of symbols and brands. Children’s play follows this pattern and this has been enhanced through digital devices.
In a short summary, my qualitative research where eighty-four young children aged four to seven, from both Denmark and Japan were observed, it became clear that brands had a bigger role than providing entertainment. The observations took place in institutions working primarily with the target group (some of them also hosted younger kids) . The study was divided in two parts. In the first one children were individually called into a prepared room, where they could play with tablet devices (there were two tablets of different brands available).In the second part of the study, children in groups of 3 or 4 could also play on the devices together, however at this time, they were asked to use a specific application (where one can draw, write, take pictures, record, etc.). All the data has been collected over the past two years, however the research is to be finalized by the end of 2016.
Based on this sample, what stood out was that children had clear preferences for known brands and when having to choose, familiarity played a role. Children chose either apps they already knew or chose brands they knew from physical toys, such as Lego or Chuggington. This notion of familiarity is not new, as theories in consumption and marketing long have studied. However, due to the pervasiveness of brands, the familiar, safety and loving aspects they are introducing to many children’s lives as they play with digital devices, questions should be raised for debate. What are children consuming while they play? What are children providing while they play? What types of information and knowledge are these brands acquiring and how will this data be used? What are the roles, normativity and stereotypes being sold by the chosen apps (and brands)?
These questions have to be discussed now in order to address future developments in the area. Digital devices were not originally designed for children, however children jumped on the wagon and became a large consumer group in the digital market. With more than eighty thousand available apps in the App store targeting just education, tablets have become a source of entertainment and knowledge. With digital media commodities and their pervasiveness in society, children become curious and tend to appropriate it fast and willingly. When not exposed to digital media directly, they will still consume digital media brands in their physical form through toys, clothes, packaging, etc. However, just as other types of media have been well assessed and scrutinized about similar topics, digital mobile devices also need to receive close attention regarding not only age concerns, but more importantly, regarding which types of information are harvested and promoted by companies during children’s play. While young children (and anyone for that matter) play on digital platforms, besides being a consumer of symbolic codes, they are also providing a lot of information to companies. Without proper guidance, children are left to absorb and engage with all this consumption without having a critical assessment of their role and the bound nature of their play. Insofar as children are part of a target group in the digital market, designers, producers, parents and educators need to be called upon in order to raise awareness about the roles and rights regarding digital devices and applications, becoming able to critically assess digital production and consumption as well as their digital routines.
Tablets can be great tools and children can play, create, be challenged and learn with these devices. Nevertheless, if our brave and branded tablet world presents a multitude of great possibilities, this can be even greater if even young users are empowered to be knowledgeable about their own consumption. In other words, knowledge about the consumption should be a goal and a right; it should not be left to be “found”on its own accord.
Isabel Fróes will be present at The Financing Forum for Kids Content
1 All parents were informed and required to give or deny permission for their kids to participate in the study. Based on the responses, children who were allowed to take part in the study, were invited to participate in the observations. 2 More on this and intertextuality, see Once Upon a Tablet (Fróes, 2015). 3 See David Buckingham and Helle Strandgaard Jensen.